Let’s Stop Saying That the Jews Killed Jesus
by Roger Lang | 19 April 2019 |
The Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting occurred at the Tree of Life, also known as the L’Simcha Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018, during Sabbath morning services. The terrorist killed eleven people, and seven were injured. In February 2019, a centuries-old Jewish cemetery in the small village of Quatzenheim, in northeastern France, was vandalized in the night. Some 96 tombs were spray-painted with blue swastikas.
These are only a couple of examples. Around the world, there is a rise in antisemitism. The reasons, historically, are many, but here is one that can be attributed to Christians: the continuing belief that the Jews killed Jesus.
Twenty-six percent of Americans still believe that the Jews killed Jesus, according to a 2013 survey by the Anti-Defamation League. The actual figure is undoubtedly higher because people are often reluctant to admit they hold politically incorrect views or unaccepted opinions. How many people would admit to being racist, even if indeed they are?
Christians need to stop antisemitism. We can begin by not blaming the Jews for killing Jesus. It is wrong. It is a lie. Christians have a responsibility to seek truth and stop propagating untruths. Practicing religious Jews did not kill Jesus.
The Jewish Populace Liked Jesus
Many accounts in the New Testament show how much the people loved Jesus and welcomed him. Jesus makes that very point to the arresting party in the Garden of Gethsemane explaining that he would sit every day in the Temple teaching, and was not seized or arrested (Matthew 26:55; Mark 14:48-49; Luke 22:52-53; cf. John 18:20). Jesus’ popularity was so great, that as he taught and healed, the throngs grew and “there was a great multitude of his disciples, and a great crowd of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon [Lebanon], and all the people were trying to touch him” (Luke 6:17,19).
With a great parallel to other Jewish teachers, Jesus taught in the Temple courtyards like that of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who used to “sit and teach daily in the shade of the sanctuary” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 26a). The Jews accepted Jesus, and he was popular among the people (Matthew 9:33). The Gospel of Matthew explains that the Jewish leadership feared a riot if they dared to arrest Jesus at a public gathering — that the “multitude” of Jews would rise to defend him. (Matt. 26:3-5).
So Then, Who Didn’t Like Jesus?
The Sadducees and Joseph Caiaphas did not like Jesus. Joseph Caiaphas was the High Priest of Jerusalem who, according to Biblical accounts, sent Jesus to Pilate for his execution. Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, the high priest from 6 to 15 CE and the head of a family that would control the high priesthood for most of the first century. Annas is mentioned in biblical accounts (Luke 3:2; Acts 4:1-22). As a high priest and chief religious authority in the land, Caiaphas had many essential responsibilities, including controlling the temple treasury, managing the temple police and other personnel, performing religious rituals, and serving as president of the Sanhedrin (rabbinical court).
The high priest had another, more controversial function in first-century Jerusalem: he served as a sort of liaison between Roman authority and the Jewish population. High priests, drawn from the Sadducean aristocracy, received their appointment from Rome since the time of Herod the Great, and Rome looked to high priests to keep the Jewish populace in line. We know from other cases (such as one incident in 66 CE) that Roman prefects demanded that high priests arrest and turn over Jews seen as agitators.
For ten years, Caiaphas served with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. The two presumably had a close relationship. Caiaphas’ motives in turning Jesus over to Pilate are a subject of speculation. Some historians suggest that he had little choice. Others argue that Caiaphas saw Jesus as a threat to the existing religious order. Many Jews resented the close relationship that the high priest maintained with Roman authorities and suspected them of taking bribes or practicing other forms of corruption.
In the year 36 CE, both Caiaphas and Pilate were dismissed from office by Syrian governor, Vitellius, according to the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus described the high priests of the family of Annas as “heartless when they sit in judgment.”
Luke 23:1 describes how the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin, plus elders, rabbis, and other officials, took Jesus to Pilate. The physical size of the Sanhedrin is small. Modern archaeology finds the ruins of the Sanhedrin to be standing-room-only for a small group of people. Therefore, only a small number of Jewish people actually sought to remove Jesus.
Did the Jews Kill Jesus?
In poring over the gospels for an answer, I was surprised to discover that few if any Jews were present at the trial and condemnation of Jesus, other than the Jewish officials: “And they led Jesus away to the high priest: and with him assembled all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes” (Mark 14:53; Luke 22:54; Matthew 26:57). The story does provide us with details on how the minority of the Roman-appointed Sadducee leadership first encountered Jesus during Passover. John 18:13 tells us that first, they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.
Besides the fact that Jews did not crucify people, the Passover rituals don’t allow ceremonially clean Jews to kill someone during the festival. The primary sources available estimate that the population living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus was probably around 80,000 to 100,000 citizens. The number of practicing Jews from the Diaspora visiting for the mandatory feast and festival of Passover would place the number of those in Jerusalem in the hundreds of thousands. There are an estimated three million people, both Jews and Gentiles, who visited Jerusalem for the Passover during the time of Jesus. According to Josephus, Hecataeus of Abdera wrote in the fourth century BC that 120,000 men inhabited Jerusalem. Josephus also said that there were 2,700,000 people within the walls of Jerusalem when the Romans, under Titus, besieged it in 70 CE.
The Bible tells us in John 18:28 that when the elders and leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters that it was early in the morning. We must also remember that the Jews would not enter the headquarters of Pilate in order to avoid ritual defilement, which would prevent them from eating the Passover. The millions of practicing Jews who were in Jerusalem during the Passover would not be breaking their ritual cleanliness by associating with a non-Jew or condemning someone to death because they would have to redo their temple sacrifice. This is not feasible or possible because the Temple slaughter of an animal takes a long period of time, notwithstanding that millions are in line all day long slaughtering their Passover lambs.
Antisemitism in Story Transmission
It is unlikely that ordinary Jews were in attendance at the trial of Jesus. Jesus’ arrest was a clandestine operation. Only select Jewish officials knew about it. It was Passover eve, and Jews were busy with purification and other preparations for the festival. They were not en masse yelling to kill Jesus. The practicing Jews could not, and would not, defile Passover.
So antisemitism has been propagated because of poorly translated theology.
A troublesome mistranslated verse found in Matthew 27:24-25 has erroneously blamed the Jews for over a millennium for killing Jesus. However, it never should have. Pilate pronounced that Jesus was guilty under Roman authority. Matthew 27:24-25 states, “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!'”
Even Pope Benedict XVI repudiates the accusations against the Jews. In his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, he acknowledges the translation of ochlos in Matthew to mean the “crowd,” rather than the Jewish people. This follows modern objective translations, and changes the perception of who killed Jesus. It can’t be the Jews, for those in the crowd could not be practicing Jews—or else they would not have been there, but rather in their own homes for the Passover holiday.
Judeans, Not Jews
The translation of “Jew” and “Judean” in the book of John is pivotal to understanding who killed Jesus. Ioudaios is an ancient Greek ethnonym used in classical and biblical literature which commonly translates to “Jew” or “Judean.” The choice of translation is the subject of various scholarly debates, given its central importance to ancient literature. The word is used primarily in three areas of literature in antiquity: the later books of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., the Books of the Maccabees), the New Testament (particularly the Gospel of John and Acts of the Apostles), and classical writers from the region such as Josephus and Philo. Translating Ioudaios as “Jews” has implications about the people—the term the “Jews” ( Ioudaios) functions as a hostile collective stereotype and is identified with evil and the devil—whereas translation as “Judeans” emphasizes a geographical origin, which could include people of other ethnicities, such as Romans.
In John 2:13, a Passover is mentioned together with the fact that Jesus and his disciples went up to Jerusalem for this occasion. Here, according to John 2:14–22, the cleansing of the temple takes place. Thus, we find Jesus active in the center of Jewish faith and religion. Jesus’ move to Judea in 3:22 means Jesus took a step outside of this religious center; he and his disciples move towards the land of Ioudaia (εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν γῆν). The expression is striking because it is unique in the New Testament. In John, the term Ἰουδαία seems to refer to Judea, the territory of the tribe of Judah. This becomes evident by the concept of “land,” which is added in 3:22, in comparison with other parts of Israel such as Samaria and Galilee, to which Jesus moves afterward (4:3–54). In 3:22 the double term might also point to the rural area outside Jerusalem belonging to the southern part of Israel.
So the use of Ἰουδαῖος in John shows that Ioudaios in passages like John 3:25 is more accurately read as “Judean” rather than “Jew.”
The problems of retelling the Passion week story often include wrongfully victimizing an entire group of people. This victimization has perpetuated violence, hatred, and genocide. Let’s stop saying, “The Jews killed Jesus.” When scripture speaks of “Jews,” we should be careful not to victimize a people, when it is actually speaking of a geographical group from Judea, composed of Jews and gentiles.
Roger Lang is a University Lecturer in Southern California for different colleges and universities, including Loma Linda University. He is working on his second doctorate degree.